The University System of Georgia is surveying students to find out what they think about various expression-related issues on the system’s campuses, including free speech zones. The University System of Georgia is currently home to one of the worst free speech zone policies on record—so bad, in fact, that FIRE named Valdosta State University‘s free speech zone our March 2008 Speech Code of the Month. That policy designates just one small stage as the sole “free expression area” for the university’s 11,000 students; limits use of the stage to just 2 hours a day; and requires 48 hours advanced notice to use the stage.
The survey, which was sent to randomly selected students at institutions throughout the University System of Georgia, asks: “Does your campus have a free speech zone, that is, a designated place on campus where people can speak to anyone that wants to listen?” The survey also asks, “Do you think free speech zones serve a useful purpose?”
Of course, it does not matter one iota whether students think free speech zones serve a useful purpose. Policies that quarantine speech to small or remote areas of campus, or that place onerous bureaucratic restrictions on the exercise of free speech (or, in the case of Valdosta State’s policy, both) are unconstitutional—period—and cannot be maintained at a public university regardless of what students think. So if the university system thinks it might be able to use favorable student feedback on free speech zones to justify such policies, it is sorely mistaken.
It may not come to that, however. In FIRE’s experience, free speech zone policies are among the most unpopular policies among students. Student activists have been instrumental in dismantling unconstitutional free speech zone policies at institutions across the country, including the University of North Carolina–Greensboro, the University of Nevada at Reno, and Colorado State University.
This survey in Georgia is a great opportunity for students to speak out against unconscionable and unconstitutional restrictions on their rights, and to hopefully begin the process of reforming free speech zone policies. If you’re a student within the University System of Georgia who didn’t receive a survey, or even just a concerned citizen, we invite you to write Chancellor Erroll B. Davis, Jr. to let him know that free speech zones like the one at Valdosta State are unconstitutional, no matter what.